The Delusions of Robert Harcus junior
A NZ Trooper who was never the same after his return from the Second Boer War
Robert stood in the pale moonlight and was mesmerised by a huge airship as it majestically glided up and over the Rock and Pillar range in East Otago, NZ. “This is the way to travel” he thought, “and now I am the Conqueror of South Africa, I could have my own airships and fly anywhere..”
He climbed back on his horse to follow the unusually large full moon high above him and reminded himself that he also owned half of Waikouaiti County including all the roads and rabbits. “I am so rich and good at rabbit hunting, I have made over £500.00 in the last two nights!?” His medical records show he believed all this despite the fact he usually had no money at all.
The next evening he was wandering around all night trying to find the airships but they had disappeared and became very upset and resistant when his father (Robert senior) and brother James confronted him, after spending hours looking for him at early dawn. He attempted a right hook which just missed his father’s jaw and it took all their strength to restrain him and get him back to their wattle and daub cottage higher up the hillside. Robert continued chuntering away to himself but no one could understand a word.
What was happening to this usually shy, retiring and mild tempered young man?
His father thought long and hard about what he could do to bring an end to these incidents as this was not the first time he had acted ‘peculiar’ since his return from the Second Boer War in South Africa. He could no longer cope with his son’s erratic, resentful and often dangerous behaviour and reluctantly reported the last incident, when he became violent, to the Police in South Palmerston.
At 2pm, on 21 October 1909, Robert Harcus was arrested at Macraes Flat, on suspicion of ‘lunacy’ and held in custody at Dunedin Police Station to await his fate. His personal effects including, £1 8s 6d, his swag, bag of shot, five cigars, cigarette holder, matches, watch and chain, pocket book, greenstone fish, kerchief, pills, bottle of Vaseline, were taken from him.
As well as his father’s account of his behaviour over recent days and years, two other doctors provided independent reports to the Dunedin Magistrate. Both concluded that Robert exhibited strange behaviour, incoherent, wandering speech, had grandiose delusions and could become very excited at times.
Committed to Lunatic Asylum
On 22 October 1909, the Stipendiary Magistrate at Dunedin was satisfied that Robert Harcus was a lunatic, within ‘the 1908 Lunatics Act’ and not under proper care and control. He was committed to the Seacliff Mental Asylum under the care of Superintendent Sir Frederick Truby King. He was from New Plymouth NZ but studied Medicine in Edinburgh and Paris and graduated in 1886. He had also taken a course in the treatment of lunacy and was one of the first doctors to hold a Diploma in Public Health when he arrived back in NZ. He remained the Superintendent at Seacliff from 1889-1920.
Seacliff Mental Asylum
It was designed by architect Robert Lawson in the late 19th century, in a Gothic revival style, sometimes referred to as a ‘fantasy castle’ due to the turrets on every corner. Robert was amazed when he saw how grandly lunatics were to to be housed! It had a spire, a gabled roof line with a central tower 50m high which was also used as an ‘observation point’ if inmates tried to escape!
Seacliff was NZ’s largest Mental Asylum located 20 miles north of Dunedin in an isolated coastal area within a forested reserve. A new asylum was needed due to the Otago gold rush which had greatly expanded the city and population and existing facilities were overcrowded. Due to a lack of understanding then, ‘feeble minded’ drunks or those with chronic mania or sexually transmitted diseases all ended up in Asylums. The main block was completed in 1884 but there were flaws in its construction and after a landslide in 1887, the building and site were confirmed unstable.
Robert’s delusions continued in the ‘fantasy castle’, Seacliff
“I am so strong I can carry hundreds of pounds of beef or mutton on my shoulders, let me show you.” “With all my wealth I will send my father back to Orkney and make him the happiest man alive.” Robert continued to have grandiose delusions of his strength and ability to do anything which constantly irritated other patients. He could not control himself as his mind and body seemed to be slowly degenerating.
The Cause(s) of Robert’s Lunacy
The Second Boer War in South Africa
This was the first war NZ fought in for the British Empire, 1889-1902. The Premier, Richard Seddon hoped this would enhance NZ’s international reputation and acted quickly so kiwi troops were one of the first to arrive in SA from the colonies. In total, about 6,500 ‘mounted rifles’ and 8,000 horses were sent in 10 Contingents.
Robert was 27 years old when he became a Trooper in the 9th Contingent, D Squadron, South Island Regiment of the Imperial Auxilary Forces. He was rejected on his attempt to join the 8th Contingent but recalled when more men were needed for the South Canterbury district. He was a Mounted Rifleman who rode on horseback to engagements but dismounted to fight the enemy. As he could ride, this helped him pass the joining requirements, which included Medical, Riding and Shooting tests.
But he was ordinarily a quiet loner and not that fond of company so the whole ‘war experience’ of being surrounded by people, horses, death and destruction must have been traumatic for him. The reward of a War gratuity for his services may have been an incentive but he turned his life upside down for this. He embarked the troopship, the Kent on 12 March 1902 at Port Chalmers, Dunedin which steamed to Durban, South Africa after a stop in Albany, a Port in Western Australia. The journey took 31 days, arriving in Durban on 12 April 1902. Many were seasick for days on the passage and the 570 horses on board suffered badly when the ship rolled in mountainous seas.
His time in SA was relatively brief as the peace settlement, Treaty of Vereeniging, was signed in Pretoria between the SA Republic and Orange Free State and the UK on 31 May 1902. And although the 9th and 10th Contingents were there toward the end of the war and not involved in Guerilla warfare, they were no doubt involved with displaced Boer and African families in the many, horrific concentration camps around SA. For young men, like Robert, witnessing these scenes may have led to post war ‘shell-shock’ and anxiety which could have affected his personality when he returned home.
2. Infection, Sexually Transmitted Disease, STD
‘No known cause’ was noted at the time for Robert’s insanity, but after a full physical examination on his arrival at Seacliff Mental Asylum, evidence was found of the tell-tale signs of Syphilis on his genital organs and the diagnosis ‘Syphilis’ was added to his medical notes. This sexually transmitted disease was also known as the ‘great imitator’ as it can cause symptoms similar to many other diseases.
His stumbling speech and excitable behaviour were all symptoms of ‘general paralysis’ of the insane due to ‘paralytic dementia’ brought on by untreated syphilitic infection. Robert had the severe symptoms of Tertiary, (late stage), Syphilis.
People often did not know they had Syphilis caused by the spirochete, Treponema Pallidum which can damage the bones, internal organs, nerves, eyes, facial appendages and brain. It can lead to gross disfigurement, eventual madness, paralysis and death. A Sore (chancre) is found in early or Primary Syphilis where the bacteria entered the body and a rash can develop in Secondary Syphilis but both stages can be easily overlooked as symptoms of the disease can first appear 10-30 years after infection. This long ‘latent stage’ prevailed in Robert’s case. He returned from SA in July 1902 but was not admitted to Seacliff Mental Asylum until 1909.
How Robert May Have Contracted Syphilis
He could have been infected on the voyages to or from the Second Boer War in Albany, Western Australia. The Kent troopship stopped on route for 3 days there and half the Battalion were allowed off the ship at a time. The people of Albany liked the kiwi Troopers and prostitutes liked Troopers but Albany did not have ‘booming prostitution’ as did SA Ports.
The Brothels of Cape Town and Durban during the Second Boer War in South Africa
From about 1896 there was an influx into Cape Town of ‘Continental’ women prostitutes due to the Transvaal gold fields, mineral revolution which resulted in a ‘brothel’ explosion! When the Boer War began soon after, the Ports became congested with refugees, pimps and prostitutes along with thousands of soldiers and sailors who were passing through or returning to their countries. Prostitutes could be easily found on the Dock-sides or in ‘late night cafes’. In Durban, prostitution also went through a similar boom during the war.
Robert had three months in SA and opportunities to be infected. He arrived near Durban on 12 April 1902 and returned to NZ in July 1902. It is unclear from which Port, but Troopships sailed from Cape Town or Durban.
Dunedin and Port Chalmers can also not be taken out of the equation for the contraction of Syphilis as it was a curse even in NZ cities at that time. There were a number of ‘houses of ill-fame’ in Dunedin. Robert returned to the Macraes area however, so the chances are minimal he was infected at home.
STD’s have always posed a threat to military servicemen throughout history e.g. in WW1, WW11 and the Vietnam War they were the second most common reason for disability, absence from duty and discharge. Few statistics are available for wars before WW1 in NZ but in the Official Medical History for Britain for the South African Boer War, figures show Syphilis and Gonorrhoea infections accounted for 4.7% of all hospitalisations, i.e. 19,127 cases treated out of 404,126. So many cases among British troops suggests that Syphilis and Gonorrhoea infections were also a problem for NZ and Australian troops.
History and Spread of Syphilis by Sailors Theory
The name ‘Syphilis’ originates from a Latin poem, ‘Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus, (the French Disease) published in 1530 by Fracastoro from Verona in Venice. It had a variety of names due to the ‘enemy’ or ‘country’ thought responsible for its spread; e.g. the English called it the ‘French Disease’, the Tahitians called it the ‘British Disease’.
The most widely believed theory suggests that Syphilis was spread by crew who picked up the disease on voyages led by Christopher Columbus in 1493 while in the Americas and the New World and then spread it on their return at Ports in Europe and beyond. ‘Infected festering prostitutes’ in the Ports and Cities, harboured this evil and then poor unsuspecting young men/troopers would be lambs to the slaughter! The tragedy was, they would not know they had been infected and if married, could then pass on the bacteria to their wives and unborn children when they returned home.
Many famous historical figures were alleged to have had Syphilis or other STD’s, including Charles VIII of France, Christopher Columbus, Benito Mussolini and Ivan the Terrible.
The first epidemic in Europe, of this ‘great pox’, broke out in 1495 among soldiers of Charles VIII when he invaded Naples, Italy. The disease was then spread when ‘French’ soldiers returned to their homelands. It reached England and Scotland in 1497 and many other countries due to world exploration.
Main Treatment /Cures for Syphilis
Mercury was used in the 16th century as an ointment rubbed onto the skin or inhaled and/or the body bathed in mercuric fumes. It was toxic with terrible side effects and patients died of mercury poisoning rather than Syphilis. Arsenic based drugs, Salvarsan and neo-Salvarsan replaced Mercury in 1910, 1912. Both could cure Syphilis but had toxic side effects and infected soldiers needed many injections.
The turning point came for Syphilis treatment in 1943 when Penicillin was introduced by John Mahoney, Richard Arnold and AD Harris at the Marine Hospital, Staten island. It was highly effective with few side effects. Syphilis, once a dreaded disease, could now be cured like other bacterial infections.
Treatment of the Insane at Seacliff Mental Asylum 1909-12
Treatment of patients has been described as callous and it wasn’t until psychiatry, insanity and e.g. Syphilis were better understood did things begin to change. ‘Mental disorders’ were believed to be incurable.
When Sir Frederick Truby King was appointed Medical Superintendent of Seacliff in 1889, he encouraged a new treatment programme and implemented his ideas that patients should have the fundamental rights to fresh air, sunshine, good nutrition, cleanliness, regular exercise and productive Work. He effectively turned a ‘prison’ into an efficient working farm, the Seacliff Farm Asylum as the site had 900 acres of farmland and patients were encouraged to grow food.
He disliked drugs as their use was ineffective but sedatives were used and Robert Harcus was probably given ‘paraldehyde’ to subdue his restless and noisy behaviour at night. The only alternatives to sedatives for violent and disruptive patients in the early days at Seacliff were ‘seclusion’ between 7-6pm and ‘physical restraints’, canvas jackets with sides attached.
Between 1912-48, modern treatments from Britain and America were introduced at Seacliff and in NZ, some after WW1, as ‘shell shock’ (war neuroses), helped change the nature of psychiatry.
There was however, no reliable treatment for Robert during his time at Seacliff 1909-12, medical advances had yet to be found and he was in late stage Syphilis. All that could be done was to isolate him and provide sedatives to calm his violent behaviour as his ‘cerebral atrophy’ worsened.
NZ and the Black Plague
In 1910, when Robert Harcus was suffering the curse, NZ Parliament was very aware of the increased growth and spread of Syphilis and other contagious diseases and wanted to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act to help protect society from ‘malignant beings’ and this black plague! It also wanted to warn and educate young lads of the ‘perils that lay in the path of vice’. Insanity had also increased significantly and by 1912 was 1 in 269 of the population, the principle causes were neurosis, syphilis and alcoholism.
The Decline of Robert Harcus in Seacliff Mental Asylum
After his admission on 22 October 1909, Robert spent over two and a half years in this large Gothic mental institution and became increasingly more violent to the extent he had to be moved to the ‘upper building’ and given sedatives to control him. During the day he would annoy other patients with his delusions and rambling speech. At night, he was particularly restless and would tear up the bedclothes.
On 14 June 1912, he took a turn for the worse and was confined to bed. Slowly over the next two weeks his condition deteriorated beyond reprieve and he passed away on 29 June 1912 of General Paralysis of the Insane, GPI. The severe neuropsychiatric disorder, afflicting those with Syphilis in the final stages of paralytic dementia. His wide open grey eyes starred into infinity, with a fear not unlike that seen in the dead rabbits’ eyes he once hunted at Macraes, but his body was now a shell and lay limp on the narrow bed. He was only 38 years old and for a young. single man who had fought for the British Empire in the Second Boer War, this was a cruel way to die.
GPI had emerged as a new syndrome of insanity in the early 19th century but it was not until 1913, after Joseph Waldron Moore and Hideyo Noguchi isolated the syphilis spirochate from a brain of a patient who had died of GPI, that Syphilis was established as the cause.
Burial in Macraes Flat Cemetery
At the request of Robert’s father to the Dunedin Magistrate, his final resting place was at Macraes Flat Southern Cemetery No.2. He is buried in the same plot as his brother, John Harcus, who died at 27 years in 1903 in a gold mine explosion. Their mother Margaret, who died in 1900 of consumption and brother David who died in 1889 just 11 years old, were buried in Macraes Flat Southern Cemetery No.1., so he was finally not alone and surrounded by other members of his family.
Originally a mild tempered loner who never married, Robert was slowly consumed by the scourge, Syphilis, which changed his character beyond all belief. And as his dementia increased, it unleashed in him great confidence of his power and ability to do anything and to experience the most wondrous delusions.
It is highly likely his journey to foreign Ports and opportunities that arose due to fighting for the British Empire in South Africa, led to his infection with Syphilis which he harboured for 10 years until he died.
Unfortunately, in the early 20th century, when he acquired the disease, there was no effective treatment for any stage of Syphilis infection. It was not until Penicillin was found in 1943 that those affected could be cured and societies could be protected from this ‘black plague’ so men, women and unborn children could be free from the ‘perils that lay in the path of vice’. These medical advances were all too late to save Robert Harcus.
He died never knowing the ‘curse’ he was suffering or the true cause of his delusions and insanity. Probably a brief encounter in the arms of an infected prostitute led to his death 10 years later, the ultimate price to pay.
Please contact me if you have any comments or questions and see My Story, Ancestral Roots in Eday Orkney for more information on the Harcus family.
Main Sources Used:
‘Unfortunate Folk’ – Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992, Edited by Barbara Brookes & Jane Thomson
Robert Harcus, Seacliff Mental Asylum Medical Notes 1909-1912, Archives New Zealand, Dunedin, 556 George Street, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand
Robert Harcus Boer War Military Records https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph
NZ Historical Birth, Death, Marriages on line - https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/search
NZ History On Line – South African Boer War https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/south-african-boer-war/introduction
Anglo Boer War website https://www.angloboerwar.com/
Journal of Military and Veterans Health, Syphilis – Its Early History and Treatment until Penicillin, and the Debate on its Origins - Volume 20 Number 4, November 2012 https://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
Dockside prostitution in South African Ports during Boer war https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229930207_Dockside_Prostitution_in_South_African_Ports
Papers Past NZ – ‘A letter’ from a Trooper in the Ninth Contingent about the voyage on the troopship Kent from Port Chalmers, Dunedin to South Africa https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OW19020416.2.295?query=a%20letter%20from%20corporal%20nut&start_date=15-04-1902&end_date=31-12-1902&snippet=true&title=LCM,LCP,LWM,ME,MIC,MTBM,NOT,OAM,ODT,OSWCC,OW,ST,TT,SOCR,WSTAR,AHCOG,BH,CL,CROMARG,DUNST,ESD
NZ Hocken Library, South African War Sources https://www.otago.ac.nz/library/hocken/otago569402.pdf
Acknowledgement of other Sources of Information/Photos/Maps:
NZ History on Line
Hocken Library Snapshot, Collections photographs South African War 1899 -1902 https://hocken.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/35102